Gamecocks begin another title defense
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- On Friday afternoon, All-America pitcher Michael Roth stood on the mound of Carolina Stadium and paused for a moment to take a look around.
Before throwing the first pitch of South Carolina's 2012 baseball season and officially beginning the Gamecocks' second consecutive College World Series title defense, the big left-hander scanned the sellout crowd and the national championship banner that had been hoisted just moments before.
Then he cast a glance around the horn at the players behind him.
"Well now," thought the senior, who nearly eight months earlier won the Gamecocks' last game, the title-clincher over Florida at Omaha's TD Ameritrade Park, "this feels different."
Different as in seeing only three of last year's starting nine in the field, including just one lone member of the infield. The good news was that CWS heroes Jackie Bradley Jr. and Scott Wingo had both looked very sharp in the pregame. The bad news is that they were dressed in golf shirts and had left the field after throwing perfect strikes as part of the opening ceremonies. Now both had been replaced in the lineup by newcomers, one freshman and one junior college transfer.
"It's always great to see the guys, but it's kind of bittersweet," Roth confessed. "Because you know you want to see Adrian [Morales] at third "
Then the pitcher reached over and patted L.B. Dantzler, the juco arrival from State College of Florida who has taken over the hot corner. "No offense, buddy," Roth said. "You know I still love you. But you remember stuff like Adrian barking at me from third, 'Throw a strike!' You get to see all those guys and all those memories go through your mind and it's very fun."
Reminiscing is also fun for head coach Ray Tanner, entering his 16th season in Columbia. But Tanner spent the weeks leading into the season-opening series with VMI reminding his returning players that "we can work on our scrapbooks later." He has bigger issues in the here and now.
On Thursday, it was scrambling to find someone who could sew names onto the 2012 home jerseys, which arrived at the last minute with blank backs. (Local establishment T&T Sporting Goods game to rescue.) On Friday, it was helping with the logistics and hype of the opening ceremonies. ("There comes a point as a coach where you say, 'Man, we gotta get this game started here,'" Tanner said.)
Now that the season is finally under way, there are bigger tasks for the preseason No. 2 team to tackle. Like figuring out who is going to play second base.
"Second base is still up in the air for me," Tanner said, referring to a three-way battle between juco arrival Chase Vergason, who started Friday, and freshmen TJ Costen and Connor Bright, who started each of Saturday's games. "I guess a couple weeks ago I thought we may go in one direction or another, and after this weekend, I'm not sure what we're going to do at second base."
Last season, Tanner liked to say he had "a field full of assistant coaches," with experienced players who could fill the gaps around them when needed. When shortstop Peter Mooney struggled early in 2011, Tanner could leave him out there, knowing that having Morales on one side and Wingo on the other allowed room to endure some growing pains. This year that luxury doesn't exist. "Now we've got three new guys out there. Who are they going to lean on? [All-American Christian] Walker's all the way over on first base."
At the start of Friday's season opener, the newbies were visibly jittery, particularly Dantzler, who not only took over at third but started his South Carolina career batting cleanup. "It was, what, 8,000-plus out there [in the crowd] and everybody was nervous," the junior admitted, discussing his 0-for-3 start and early tough defensive play. "By the fourth inning, we'd all had a chance to make some plays and get settled."
In the bottom of the eighth, in typical South Carolina fashion, the team found itself stuck in a 1-1 tie. Veteran Evan Marzilli reached on a bunt single and was moved into scoring position via a sacrifice from fellow returnee Adam Matthews. With two outs and facing an 0-2 count, Dantzler stroked a pitch into center, driving in the winning run.
"When I actually got to first, I kind of looked around and it was pretty cool to see the whole crowd and everybody going crazy," he said. "There's just unbelievable fans around here."
Those fans packed in two more games on Saturday, bringing the weekend total to more than 23,000. Or, as Dantzler joked, more than saw him play in two years of junior college. Fans posed for photos with South Carolina's back-to-back national championship trophies, displayed in a center-field trophy case, and Tweeted photos of the 2011 College World Series pennant as it flapped in the breeze.
They also watched their new third baseman add three more hits, including his first Gamecock homer during a 13-1 rout to close out the VMI series.
After this weekend's series against Elon followed by a warm-up game against Presbyterian, March 2-4 brings a three-game, three-city showdown with Clemson, a series that erupted into fights and fractured friendships one year ago.
In other words, there's not much time to jell.
"Sure, they were nervous. But I tell this [to young guys] all the time, you're good players," said Tanner, explaining how he told his guys to relax. "You're not going to play good all the time, but that's what it needs to be."
Then a few minutes later, he stopped short of the door and turned around with a smile.
"Do me a favor and let's not tell those guys about last year's Clemson series quite yet."
Ryan McGee is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN Insider.